Ride the Amalfi Coast

Discover the glamour and beauty of the Amalfi Coast by bike and boat

Ride the Amalfi Coast Bikes at the port of Sant-Angelo on Ischia - Jan Fuscoe
By Jan Fuscoe

If you can’t explore one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world in a classic sportscar, the next best way is on a bicycle: cycling up and down the hills of the Amalfi coast by day and bedding down on a boat each night.

In keeping with this less cosmopolitan option, I decided to skip the private jet and take the overnight train to Naples, from where I was to spend the next seven days cycling and sailing. It’s cheap, eco-friendly and a lot of fun.

Starting with the 10.25am Eurostar from St Pancras International, my journey was a breeze. Checking in took five minutes; an awkward-shaped rucksack containing bottles of shampoo and aftersun larger than 100ml didn’t warrant so much as a raised eyebrow and I strolled through security without having to remove a single item of clothing. Just over two hours later, I was in central Paris; from there, I hopped on a TGV and made a comfortable but uneventful journey to Milan, followed by an overnighter to Naples. The sleeper compartment was very nifty (the sink is in a cupboard and shelves drop down to become beds), if dated –  it looked like an Intercity 125 circa 1977. But the gentle rocking of the train as it pootled down through Bologna and Florence to Rome then Naples was soporific, which is what matters. Luckily, I had the cabin to myself – travellers looking to accurately replicate the romantic overnight trip Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint enjoyed in North by Northwest must book a two-bed; the three-bed cabins are for single-sex groups only.

See Naples

Once in noisy Naples, I left the shiny new central station, sped across shabby Piazza Garibaldi and took a bus (the R2) to chic Chiaia for my first Italian coffee. I wasn’t staying the night so had deposited my rucksack in left luggage at platform five so I could run around town. I had a relaxing spaghetti alle vongole (with clams) lunch in the Borgo Marinaro – once a nineteenth-century fishing village and now a marina – at the foot of the twelfth-century Castel dell’Ovo. Sipping a glass of a crisp local white called Greco di Tufo, I watched the boats come and go while local kids dive-bombed into the water. 

My last train journey, for the time being, was the Circumvesuviana – which, as the name suggests, skirts around Vesuvius and along the Neapolitan coast. I finally made it to my floating hotel in Castellammare harbour – and what a beauty it was: a traditional two-masted sailing boat, all polished wood, furled sails, shiny fittings and coils of rope. My fellow cyclists had also arrived and after we’d met the crew, we tested our bikes and then started to get to know each other over dinner.

Getting started

Guide Alex had riders of varying skills in a group that ranged from ultra-fit keenies to ordinary ‘leisure’ cyclists like me. She had her work cut out, but she kept us all contented and challenged. We were given detailed maps of our routes so that the speedsters could forge ahead, but mostly we cycled with Alex, as she guided, encouraged, effected repairs when necessary and provided helpful tips.

After a quick lesson from her on changing gears in the right way when ascending hills, my performance improved dramatically; after a particularly steep climb, I developed a painful stitch but Alex showed me a few exercises to shift it.

On the road

Every day was different; on some days the cycling was tougher than on others – but after the hard stints there were amazing views to take your mind off aching limbs. The first ride took us to Pompeii, a leisurely nine miles along back streets, past allotments, and only occasionally on a main road. At the ruins, the audio guide revealed plenty about Pompeian society, and though most of the artefacts (mosaics, cooking utensils and a collection of ‘sexually explicit finds’) are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, there was still plenty to see – including heartbreaking casts of the victims, bent and cowering as they tried to protect themselves from the cloud of burning pumice after Vesuvius erupted in AD79.

The ride from Sorrento to Cetara (21 miles) was one of the toughest, the initial part involving five horrifyingly steep ascents; then it was hard going as we quickly climbed to 310 metres above sea level. But even on this stretch, the effort was repaid tenfold. The winding roads cut into cliffs that plunged straight down into the clear turquoise sea – and in spite of the seeming impossibility of building here, the route is punctuated by pretty villages clinging to craggy outcrops. It’s a photo opp at every turn – at least once you catch your breath.

Amalfi coast villages

In the tenth century, the city of Amalfi was the capital of a powerful duchy and was a trading hub – these days its highlights are the paper museum, its spectacular duomo and the Pansa chocolate shop. Only the mad keen did the extremely steep climb up that came next; the rest of us took the winding six kilometre bus ride inland to Ravello and alighted at Villa Rufolo (the inspiration for the garden in Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’) before visiting its duomo where the blood of St Pantaleone, contained in reliquaries, is said to miraculously re-liquify each year. Cetara was my favourite stop – an authentic working fishing community, where sun-wrinkled fishermen bring in their catches of anchovies and tuna and, as the sun goes down, sit mending nets or repairing boats. 

On board

The great thing about the bikes was that they allowed us to cover quite a distance and at the same time gave us the freedom to stop whenever we liked – to take pictures, pick up fresh fruit from roadside stalls or just rest a while. And, as if the days weren’t varied enough, there was the sea as well: we got out of the saddle to sail to the Bay of Naples islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida, and the journeys there gave us a chance to kick back, shower, read, sunbathe on deck and take in the coastline from the sea.

One of the most satisfying aspects of this was looking back and marvelling at how much of the coast we’d covered and coming into port was always an event, drawing crowds who were impressed by our beautiful boat. In Capri, the harbourmaster even brought a bottle of bubbly to welcome us. Then there was the food, cooked on board by chefs Tania and Betul, who served up incredible three-course meals every night.

Crews vary, but on all trips the captain is responsible for assessing the weather and deciding whether it’s safe to set sail for the islands, or if you should remain in port. We were lucky the weather didn’t upset our plans, but Alex was ready for any eventuality. On the one night conditions took a turn for the worse, the boat heaved but I eventually fell asleep to the sound of creaking timbers and slapping waves.

Heading home

On day six, we lunched on Ischia’s San Francesco beach, cycled up to a high point and freewheeled all the way down to the picturesque port of Sant’Angelo for a beer and some fried fish. It was our last day of cycling, and, in spite of my initial reservations about a ‘holiday’ where I’d be cycling most days, I felt sorry it was all over. To cure my sadness, I booked another lunch in Naples. This time, I headed up to the eighth floor of the Romeo Hotel to the new rooftop Beluga SkyBar, where I had feather-light, pan-fried panzotti filled with ricotta and salami, and my final spaghetti with clams (brought up to date with some additional courgette and a hint of chilli). It definitely raised my spirits.

Top tips

On the overnight train, breakfast is included, but remember to take something to eat and drink.

My cycling trip was ranked as not very demanding, but even though it was only 120km in total, the hills were very challenging in places.

Buy (or borrow) the best pair of shorts you can afford - with plenty of padding.

Don’t wear underwear when cycling! The extra material causes chafing.

Don’t overpack. One advantage of train travel is all the stuff you can bring back at no extra cost: bottles of wine, jars of anchovies, cheeses…

Fast facts

Getting there

Rail Europe (1 Regent St, London SW1Y 4XT, 0844 848 4070) offers return train fares from London to Naples from £283 in standard class with accommodation in a three-berth sleeper, rising to £471.50 for a single-sleeper compartment. Both Easyjet and British Airways fly direct to Naples Airport from London Gatwick.

The package

Do the Amalfi coast bike-and-boat tour with Freedom Treks, from £1,150 per person (based on two people sharing) for seven nights on a boat, including bike hire, Italian/English-speaking guides, maps, port and harbour fees for five nights.

Time Out guidebooks

Time Out’s Italy: Perfect Places to Stay, Eat & Explore selects 30 of the country's most idyllic destinations and takes you straight to the loveliest hotels, best restaurants and most compelling sights in each. Available from the Time Out shop for a discount.